Bonus of a nasty illness: it gets easier to sort the humans from the lost boys


By Gideon Schneider
December 11, 2008
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I arrived 10 minutes early for our get-together. Dim lighting wasn’t enough to conceal the lack of other diners in the restaurant. I ordered an unwanted drink, before sitting at the nearest of the vacant tables. The waiter shot me a suspicious glance. “My friends will be here in a minute… er, I’ll order food then,” I stammered.

Why was I grovelling? Surely the restaurant would value a seated customer, who might convince passers-by to enter under the false assumption the establishment was popular.

Ten painful minutes passed under the scrutiny of an impatient staff. I was finally relieved by the arrival of my new-found cancer friends, Joseph and Vered.

The faint hum of hits from the 1980s was drowned by a sudden surge in decibels as the three of us exchanged animated greetings. Both of them had contacted me on Facebook after hearing about my condition through mutual friends. We shared an affliction but were united by our light-hearted attitudes.

“I brought something really cool for you both to see,” a now-cured Vered beamed, as she added her scarf and coat to the heap we had made on the spare chair. She took from her bag a bulging notebook. “It’s the diary I kept throughout my treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease last year.”

She passed round photographs documenting her change from long haired and slender to bald and puffy, and back again.

Throughout this metamorphosis in pictures, her ear-to-ear smile had remained a constant feature. “Look — I’ve got all my old hospital wristbands and doctors notes. Cool, huh?”

The waiter approached with a pad, tapping his pen against the paper. We weren’t ready to order so he shuffled back to the kitchen, promising an imminent return.

“The story of my diagnosis four years ago is great,” said a now-healthy, wide-eyed Joseph. His doctor had misdiagnosed the then 16-year-old’s nausea, prescribing over-the-counter pills and giving his blessing for Joseph’s upcoming holiday to Australia.

He spent the majority of the 25-hour flight being sick and sweating with fever. An endoscopy conducted the next day showed five perforated duodenal ulcers, while a blood test showed he had a dangerous Creatinine level of about 40, which can indicate kidney failure.

Several days of further tests at the Sydney Children’s Hospital failed to uncover the cause of his condition, until a scan at last revealed Joseph was suffering from stage four Burkitt’s Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) — an extremely rare cancer.

His left kidney had pretty much failed, down to about 20 per cent function. He was keen to tell us that the dictionary definition of Burkitt’s ALL is: “The most rapidly growing malignancy… cure is uncommon.”

“Ready to order?” Grabbing at the laminated menus we had thus far ignored, we ran our fingers down thee columns. Cappuccino, coke and a shake, please. This didn’t satisfy the waiter, whose hand itched to write more. We requested three plates of chips which apparently came with a free side order of rolled eyes and thinly-veiled disdain.

The waiter disappeared behind the kitchen’s swinging doors, leaving Joseph to continue his story. The treatment he needed was brutal. At one point he had to be nil-by-mouth for 11 days, “which was a nightmare because there were fast food adverts and cooking shows on every channel of the hospital TV”, he told us.

The day after his initial round of chemotherapy finished he came down with the worst case of mucositis — a side-effect of chemo — the hospital had ever seen. “One of my claims to fame,” he said brightly.

As I noisily sucked up the remaining drops of coke, there was still no sign of our food. If the NHS had made me wait for treatment as long as we were waiting for our simple order, I probably would have had my chips.

Vered asked who my consultant was. I told her Professor Goldstone, from University College Hospital in London, was looking after me.

“The Prof! He’s amazing,” she said, telling me she too had had her treatment overseen by him. She glowingly recounted his warm bedside manner and matter-of-fact approach.

Our chips arrived and between mouthfuls Vered asked me if I was neutrophaenic. The two laughed at my stuttering attempt at repeating the word. “You newbies!” Joseph teased. “It’s when your white blood cell count (WBC) goes so low you’re more at risk of infection.”

I could happily confirm my WBC was still above three.

Two other tables now had occupants waiting to order. On his way over, our waiter swung by and slammed a greasy bill down in front of us. “Service isn’t included,” he said. I hadn’t noticed any either.

“We should do this again, it was fun,” Vered said, taking out a diary to pencil us in.

We went our separate ways, wrapped against cold and armed with fresh resolve not to let our spirits drop, whatever the challenges ahead whether they involve life-threatening illnesses or morale-sapping restaurant staff.

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